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March 2, 2012

Book Notes: Kennedy: a unique individual

— It’s been almost 50 years since the Kennedy assassination shocked the nation. Since then much has been written about President John F. Kennedy and whether he would have achieved his destiny (whatever that may have been) if he had lived. It is said he inspired young people in a way that has never been equaled. And there is the notion of Camelot, espoused by his widow Jackie, that there will never be a time of hope and promise like that again.

It is hard to know what would have happened if Kennedy had lived and served two full terms. It’s easy to romanticize his legacy because of the horrific way the country lost its youngest elected president. He had a youthful, handsome look, a seemingly athletic build, a radiant and intelligent first lady, and an ability to communicate well with the public and the press. But as with most politicians, appearances can be deceiving.

Kennedy had major health concerns throughout his life, he was unfaithful to his wife from day one, and he was a cut-throat politician who used any means to get ahead. It is therefore an open and ongoing debate to understand how great a president he could have been.

Into this breach comes the latest biography of the man, “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero,” by Chris Matthews. Matthews is probably best known as the host of the political talk show “Hardball” on MSNBC where his guests have trouble getting a word in edgewise. He may also not be the most objective person to review the life of our late president. He almost worships Kennedy for the way he inspired him and other young people to join the Peace Corps and be a positive force in this country.

But Matthews does a good job of hiding any bias toward Kennedy. He doesn’t overlook his fragile medical situation and womanizing. In fact he emphasizes the cheating on his wife as a major blot on his record. He even notes that Kennedy was off gallivanting around the Mediterranean with his buddies when Jackie gave birth to a still-born baby in 1956. For someone who was supposedly such a devout Roman Catholic, it’s especially galling considering how faithful and devoted his wife was to him. But in terms of pure politics Kennedy was brilliant, tireless and ruthless; willing to do whatever it took to achieve success.

Kennedy spent much of his early years in bed or the hospital with one physical ailment after another. He read vociferously and sharpened his mind on history and the great leaders of the world.

He was never impoverished, so he went to prep school and Ivy League colleges, and spent a lot of time traveling in Europe.

He finagled his way into the U.S. Navy during World War II despite his health problems and ended up commanding a PT boat in the South Pacific. This situation led to his becoming a war hero as he directed the survival and rescue of most of his crew after his boat, PT 109, had been sliced in half by a Japanese destroyer.

After the war, Kennedy entered politics and quickly learned how to get ahead. He served three terms in the House of Representatives before going after the Massachusetts Senate seat of the powerful and popular Republican Henry Cabot Lodge.

Kennedy won that race and there seemed no stopping him after that.

He came close to winning the nomination for vice president at the 1956 Democratic National Convention, an episode that had the positive effect of putting his name on the national stage, but also keeping him from being on a losing ticket.

During his time in the House he ironically was very close to Richard Nixon, his opponent in the 1960 Presidential election. In the Senate he managed to miss the vote to censure Sen. Joseph McCarthy because McCarthy was a family friend. Nothing, though, kept him from becoming a rising star in the Democratic Party.

By 1960, he was ready to go after the presidency. He had built a strong organization and only had to overcome fears that he would be taking his orders from the pope to obtain the nomination. Once he cleared that hurdle, he narrowly defeated Nixon in a contest best remembered for the first nationally televised presidential debates. Kennedy was thought to have “won” these contests because he looked better on TV than Nixon.

Once in office, Kennedy faced numerous international crises.

He ended up with egg on its face when he approved of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba (an effort to topple Fidel Castro) and it was a complete failure. He also sent 16,000 advisers to Vietnam leaving the lingering question whether he would have eventually escalated the war as his successor, Lyndon Johnson, did.

On the plus side, Kennedy did initiate the successful race to put a man on the moon after the Russians put the first man in orbit around the earth.

He also started the Peace Corps (Matthews’ first love), successfully stood up to the Russians during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and pushed the cause for civil rights.

When that shocking day on Nov. 22, 1963, occurred it cut short what many feel would have been a presidency of gravitational change. After reading Matthews’ account of the man known as Jack we can only appreciate that he was a unique individual who aspired to greatness. It’s a shame we’ll never know what might have been.